OMD: ‘Our whole raison d’etre is to try to ask musical questions’

OMD. Picture: Alex Lake/www.twoshortdays.com
OMD. Picture: Alex Lake/www.twoshortdays.com
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Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark are celebrating their 40th anniversary with a box set and tour. Singer Andy McCluskey spoke to DUNCAN SEAMAN.

Mid-jaunt across the United States, OMD frontman Andy McCluskey is decidedly perky. At the point where we speak he is in Grand Rapids, Michigan where he is touring with The B-52s and Berlin – all bands, he says “who are celebrating their 40th birthday and it’s been a very enjoyable package, it’s been a great success”.

This month the synth-pop pioneers are back on the road in Britain, promoting a box set and two-disc compilation of edited career highlights. McCluskey notes he and long-time friend Paul Humphreys actually wrote their first song together – Electricity – back in 1976, “when we were 16”.

“I think the thing that’s quite difficult to digest is the fact that a band that started as a one-off dare to do a single concert in October 1978 has been on what we describe as this wonderful accident for 40 years,” he says. “Possibly because we never intended to. We’ve always done what we felt like doing and we’ve led ourselves to interesting and curious places.”

In the early days “there really wasn’t a lot of forward-planning”, McCluskey says. “The intention was just to do one concert as a dare to say, ‘We got up and did it our way just once’. We’d been hiding away in the back room at Paul’s mum’s house like the ugly ducklings because our mates were all into Genesis and The Eagles and Pink Floyd and we were doing this music that they didn’t understand at all and which, quite frankly, they thought was rubbish.

“It was really only the existence of Eric’s Club [in Liverpool] that dared us to consider playing a concert, and then literally it was just one step after another. Somebody offered us another gig, somebody offered us another gig, then we sent a cassette to Tony Wilson just cheekily trying to blag our way on to Granada Reports evening TV show that sometimes had bands on.

The dilemma we faced after we’d reformed and played a couple of tours was asking ourselves the question, ‘Is this what we are now? Are we essentially a tribute band to ourselves? Will we just keep playing the same songs over and over?’

Andy McCluskey

“Little did we know he was starting a label and our cassette was languishing in a plastic bag in his car and was pulled out by his wife, who went, ‘That sounds interesting, what’s that?’ and he said, ‘Oh no, I’ve met them, not my cup of tea’. She played Electricity off this cassette and said, ‘No, dear, that’s the sort of band you should be signing’. So without her finding our cassette in a rubbish bag in the car we wouldn’t have had a 40-year career.”

Wilson might have told McCluskey and Humphreys that his then tiny indie concern Factory Records couldn’t get them played on Radio 1 or make them famous, but he said: “We’ll use this as a demo to get you to a label where you need to go because you are the future of pop music.” At the time, McCluskey says, “I think we told him to do something that involved an expletive. We said, ‘We’re not pop, we’re experimental’. We didn’t see ourselves as being pop at all but what we hadn’t realised was we’d unconsciously distilled the more melodic elements of Kraftwerk and the cheesy pop of the early 70s British glam into something that was indeed going to be the next new pop thing.”

The sleeve artwork for Electricity was designed by Peter Saville, with whom the band would go on to have a long relationship. Indeed, he worked on the new box set. McCluskey says Saville’s input was “invaluable” in creating an aesthetic for OMD. “I think Peter realised quite quickly that there was a kindred spirit there, particularly between myself and him. I had intended to go to art college and took a gap year and that’s when the band started. So Peter and I kind of knew what we were talking about in terms of references of art and his desire to do strong, powerful sleeves that were obviously influenced by early to mid-20th century art movements resonated strongly with me.

“I think the combination of the music inside his sleeves made the whole package much stronger. To be honest, I’m entirely sure that half the people who bought the first album bought it for the sleeve with these blue and orange cut-out lozenges.”

From 1980 onwards the band would enjoy a string of top ten singles, starting with Enola Gay. Their 1981 album Architecture & Morality sold four million copies and yielded three top-five singles, including Souvenir, sung by Humphreys. Its extensive use of mellotron signalled a band looking to broaden their musical horizons. “We were looking for something to expand our musical palette,” McCluskey says. “It was very exciting to get your hands on something that could make a whole new collection of noises. But it wasn’t just the mellotron. The first two keyboards that Paul and I bought second-hand was a Vox Jaguar organ, which was the mainstay of mid-60s pop, and an electric piano that was also from the 60s. Here we were trying to make music of the future with junk-shop keyboards.”

Despite major success in the US, Humphreys would leave the band in 1988 and McCluskey continued as band leader for three albums before going into management with the girl group Atomic Kitten, for whom he co-wrote the number one single Whole Again. In 2006 McCluskey and Humphreys regrouped and since then they have released three more albums.

“I think making the three albums has had a huge influence on the way we view ourselves and the way that we’re viewed by others,” McCluskey says. “The dilemma we faced after we’d reformed and played a couple of tours was asking ourselves the question, ‘Is this what we are now? Are we essentially a tribute band to ourselves? Will we just keep playing the same songs over and over?’

“That’s OK if that’s what you want to do, and let’s be honest, 99 per cent of the people who come to see you live will be excited when you play the big hits that they know and recall and are the soundtrack to their lives and it’s an honour to be considered so.

“But I think doing the three new albums has contemporised us. The whole zeitgeist, the whole raison d’etre of being in Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, was to ask musical questions, was to try to go forward, was to try to create something that had a relevance and was not just repeating the same patterns over and over again. So I think in particular the English Electric and The Punishment of Luxury albums have made people sit up and go, ‘Wow, they sound like OMD but they’re not pastiching themselves. Actually they sound like OMD because they’re still writing about new subjects, they’re finding new sounds to use, they’re finding new ways of making music and using sound collages. It’s distinctively OMD but it’s not just a bland copy of themselves.’ So I think that has given us a whole new lease of life.”

Souvenir: the singles collection and the career anthology 1979-2019 box set are out now. OMD play at York Barbican on Sunday October 27, Hull Bonus Arena on October 28 and Sheffield City Hall on November 3. www.omd.uk.com